It has been more than twenty years since the Disney film “Aladdin” was in theaters, and now, the Arabian folktale about a young boy who is granted three wishes by a genie is coming to Broadway in February 2014.
When I heard the news, I was thrilled because I adore “Aladdin” and I still listen to the entrancing film score by Alan Menken to this day. So, I immediately went online to find out more information and I was shocked when I saw there was not one recognizably Arab person in the cast. I know the story is set in a fictional city called “Agrabah” but I think it is safe to assume that place is somewhere in the Middle East if the opening song is “Arabian Nights”.
I can’t say I was surprised that the title role was not given to an Arab actor but I was surprised that the role of the princess wasn’t either. Especially since it has been a common trope for decades to pair a strong white male lead with women of color in ethnic settings as a kind savior in contrast to their own brutish men (The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves etc.)
Then I remembered the horrible backlash Nina Davuluri received after she was crowned Miss America 2014 in September. Though she is of Indian heritage (and Hindu), many ignorant, racist Americans couldn’t tell the difference between a Bollywood performance and Bellydancing so they were outraged that an “Arab Muslim terrorist” had become the face of the nation.
Obviously, the cast for “Aladdin” had already been chosen at that point but the strong anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in this country was probably a big factor in the complete de-arabization of the production.
Right now, “Aladdin,” is being performed at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto to mixed reviews but I wonder what would have happened if Adam Jacobs who plays the title character and Courtney Reed who plays Princess Jasmine were replaced by brown people. Was Michael Savage correct when he said:
“I tell you right now – the largest percentage of Americans would like to see a nuclear weapon dropped on a major Arab capital. They don’t even care which one […] I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity. It’s the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings.”
After what happened to Nina and the eradication of Arabs from an Arabian folktale, it seems he is just expressing what other people may not have the courage to say out loud. I am not faulting the producers of “Aladdin” since it is questionable if people would attend if they had cast differently. After all, they would lose a lot of money if people had stayed away for fear there were bombs hiding in Prince Ali’s harem pants to take them to “A Whole New World”.
Images: Michael Loccisano and Tuacahn
Tayannah McQuillar is a writer and the Founder of Demimonde Public Relations (www.demimondepr.com) @demimondepr